Firefighters take on terrorism role
The program is being tested with the New York City fire department.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Firefighters in major cities are being trained to take on a new role as lookouts for terrorism, raising concerns of eroding their standing as trusted American icons and infringing on people’s privacy.
Unlike police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel need no warrants to enter hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings each year, which puts them in position to spot behavior that could indicate terror activity or planning.
There are fears, however, that they could lose the faith of a skeptical public by becoming the eyes of the government, looking for suspicious items like building blueprints or bomb-making manuals or materials.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Americans have surrendered some privacy rights in an effort to prevent future strikes. The government monitors telephone calls and e-mails; people who fly have their belongings searched before boarding and are limited in what they can carry; and some people have trouble traveling because their names are similar to those on terrorist watch lists.
The American Civil Liberties Union says using firefighters to gather intelligence is another step in that direction. Mike German, a former FBI agent who now is national security policy counsel to the ACLU, said the concept is dangerously close to the Bush administration’s 2002 proposal to have workers with access to private homes, such as postal carriers and telephone repairmen, report suspicious behavior to the FBI.
“Americans universally abhorred that idea,” German said.
The Homeland Security Department is testing a program with the New York City fire department to share intelligence information so firefighters are better prepared when they respond to emergency calls. Homeland Security also trains the New York City fire service how to identify material or behavior that may indicate terrorist activities. If it is successful, the government intends to expand the program to other major metropolitan areas.
As part of the program, which started last December, Homeland Security gave secret clearances to nine New York fire chiefs, according to reports obtained by The Associated Press.
“They’re really doing technical inspections, and if perchance they find something like, you know, a bunch of RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] rounds in somebody’s basement, I think it’s a no-brainer,” said Jack Tomarchio, a senior official in Homeland Security’s intelligence division. “The police ought to know about that; the fire service ought to know about that; and potentially maybe somebody in the intelligence community should know about that.”
Even before the federal program began, New York firefighters and inspectors had been training to recognize materials and behavior the government identifies as “signs of planning and support for terrorism.”
The trial program with Homeland Security opens a clear information-sharing channel that did not exist before between the fire service and Homeland Security’s intelligence division.
“If in the conduct of doing their jobs they come across evidence of a crime, of course they should report that to the police,” said German. “But you don’t want them being intelligence agents.”
It’s of particular concern for communities already under law enforcement scrutiny. “Do we want them to fear the fire department as well as the police?” German asked.